Tuesday 29 October 2013

Medieval World

Every once in a while a commenter will remind me that, yeah, I am slowly eking out a series of genre/environment cliche d20 tables and it wouldn't be too hard to get the next one going. Ideas for these come over a few days and then, there you have it.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Sample Setting in 32 Encounters

This is page number 50 of the 52 pages. It's a slightly less-than-generic medieval town-to-village-to-dungeon of the kind I describe on this other page. Page 51 will be the sample dungeon. I wish I could put an example of play in as well but I think page 52 will have to be more general GM advice.

What's important with these encounters is to make most of them lively - to work implicit action into that short one-line description. One last-minute feature I thought of: instead of d8, roll d10 or d12, and on a result of 9 of higher roll 2d8 and have the party walk in on an encounter between those two.

Another idea: give each area a "boss" that is encountered instead of the first encounter that would be a repeat. It might be a tripping druid in the woods, a shy wererat in the village, the river god's daughter on the river, or the Baron in town. This means the setting has the feel of slow discovery as the characters settle in it.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Two-word Setting Seeds

Here's a simple idea inspired by noisms' observation that having a basic idea about your setting is key to improvisation. I would add that at the same time, you have to come up with ideas that fit the setting but stay fresh, because the imagination under pressure reverts to mediocrity. So how do you turn the stale into the fresh, without veering off the deep and and having encounters with toasters and snuffleupagi?

One answer is to take the elements of your familiar setting and combine them in new ways. Let's say your party has decided to flip the bird to your carefully prepared plans, and heads to a village of adventure you haven't prepared, in hex 2049, the genre being medieval European fantasy. You quickly fill the hexes around with the first ideas that come off the top of your head, in adjective-noun format. Then to your dismay you realize they're all old-hat cliches:

So, just switch the adjectives across the middle, and you're left with this set of encounters that really crackles and challenges:

This works with as few as two cliches - if the party goes off the track and has to choose, make it a choice between frost giants and Skull Castle. Oh, I mean skull giants and Frost Castle. Better now.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

A Cellar By Any Other Name

They found a DUNGEON.  Would this story have gone semi-viral under any other name?

Not a basement, mind you, a dungeon. Would a secret cellar or crawlspace be "amazing"? And by that hoary name, older by any reason than the Victorian building, they invoke all that goes with it - torture and skeletons and exploration and adventure. Even if there's no sign of hobgoblins, only hooligans.

The steam-tunnel legends that circulated in the early days of the roleplaying  hobby betray the desire to transform the surplus space of industrial civilization into something haunted,  magical. Even though this photo essayist doesn't descend into full confabulation as does the Ted the Caver website, you can hardly fault someone for wishing to open that trapdoor and hear the grunting of pig-headed mutants far, far below ... or the scurrying of rats, down the twisting stair to a bone-littered cavern, millennia of cannibal rites and madness.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Kicking the Cleric Out of the Niche

Here and here are Talysman's posts where he hates "niche protection." It's a question of who-can-do-what in a role-playing game. I agree that the rules should be based on a view of what characters can do that has its own integrity, not manufactured to create some outcome at the player level.

And yet - especially when it comes to magic - there's such a variety of plausible ways of doing things that we can't help but choose among systems. In that case, why not choose wisely? As I argued a while ago, a good game will strike a balance between making a given skill set useful while not making it strictly necessary.

One example: the cleric. Many experienced players, depending on their D&D-like system, consider the cleric to be an indispensable member of the group. Let's look at the most extreme version of this, in AD&D, where it is easy to get a cleric who starts with two first level spells(1 bonus spell due to 15+ wisdom), almost always Cure Light Wounds.

So you get a slightly less effective fighter with one less hit point on average, worse attack and limited weapons, BUT:

Average HP restored from those two Cure Light Wounds: 9
Average HP of a first level fighter: 5.5

That's right, a character who not only fights in their own right, not only turns undead and can do miscellaneous other things with spells, but provides a force multiplier in the course of play (assuming damage is not taken in huge lots) equal to almost two fighters.

The decision in OD&D and B/X to not give clerics ANY spells until 2nd level in hindsight seems reasonable, although Labyrinth Lord climbs down from this with 1 spell at 1st level and so on. Even without bonus spells this is still a pretty nice force multiplier, that lags behind the fighter's hit dice at middle levels but perks up with the ability to cure serious wounds and raise dead at higher. The choice, still, is not ideal; between a game where clerics have to prove their gumption by spending their first level as a sucky fighter who can turn undead, and a game where clerics are seen as mandatory to the point where people will play them even though they don't really want to.

I've seen first-hand in my gaming group the dismay with which players face the prospect of adventuring without a cleric (my 52 pages version has a healing power that likewise is a pretty big force multiplier). The obvious fix is to do what I did with wizards to stop the "sleep/magic missile" fixation; allow only one example of each spell to be cast a day. Because my system lets spells become available at every character level, I could even give a very minor healing spell at cleric character level 1 and the Cure Light Wounds equivalent only at cleric character level 2.

This might be the last major change to the 52 Pages, but I think it achieves the goal of letting clerics feel useful at Level 1, but not indispensable at higher levels. Hell, I might even give them their at-will turning back.

Friday 18 October 2013

Famous Teleportation Mishaps

How does teleportation work, exactly? That is, you are in one place, and then another; presumably, the air rushes in to fill the space after you are gone; but what happens to the stuff in the space you now enter?

Two possibilities. One, you somehow mingle with what you teleport into; the basis of both versions of The Fly, and of the nightmare scenario where you end up immediately dead after teleporting into a wall.

The other, which I prefer, is that you displace whatever you are teleporting into. Still leads to a sad and lonely death if you teleport into solid matter, but much more forgiving otherwise.

Of course, nothing says fantasy has to be consistent. Indeed, I'd think our intuitive approach to magical
teleportation is a mix of the two ideas. We like the gruesome consequences of teleporting halfway into a floor or ending up as a Brundlefly, but don't consider the consequences of mingling for normal teleportation, where your whole system would be pumped with a nitrogen - oxygen - CO2 mixture that probably would give rise to some version of the bends.

Summoning sickness, anyone?

Displacement, likewise, has some interesting side effects if applied consistently. For example, any wizard's district or magical academy where teleporting is practiced constantly would probably have an abundance of the hallmarks of slightly off teleports: footprints in the floor where a teleport went slightly too low, or in some cases craters where a wizard had to be dug out of solid rock.

One of the better dead ends in a dungeon might be one where, using detect magic, somebody dug their way to the entombed corpse of a way-off wizard to rob him for his enchanted loot. All that's left is the indentation of his body, maybe a skeleton, and a cursed item for the unwary ....

Call it pedantry if you like - but it's the good kind of pedantry, where working out the details of a consistent world leads not to "this can't happen" or "this is more boring" but "wow, really, that happens?"

Finally, for some reason, fantasy teleportation doesn't seem to arouse the same worries about scrambling matter that sci-fi* teleportation does, at least if game rules are anything to go on.  Maybe it's because we have an implicit model of magic as working off some idea of Platonic forms - a kind of object-oriented programming, if you will. Thus, the danger in a spell that changes the "location" attribute of "you" is not that you will be changed, but that you will end up where you don't want to be. By contrast, sci-fi teleportation works in a molecular physics of reality where it's much more clear that you will have to be disassembled and reassembled, monad by monad, giving rise to all sorts of philosophical dilemmas and wacky mishaps.

* Is the last person who viscerally hates this term finally dead?

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Clever Rules Fade Away

After a languid summer I'm ready to enter the home stretch and put the final touches on my 52 Pages house rules. Scrap Princess' review reminded me that there is always a gap between the clever system you think up at home and what actually goes down at the table. Indeed, I had some stuff in there that bore little resemblance to the way I actually play, like the "encounter start" matrix that was my substitute for surprise rolls.  So I managed to boil it down to be more like guidelines than rules, and more like what I'll actually do in play - figure out the surprise status by common sense, with maybe a roll for alertness if I'm unsure of the disposition of the defenders.

Likewise for my magical treasure table, which caused some puzzlement when it first came out. I decided to make it more straightforward and more geared toward low levels - appropriately for the "Basic" style levels 1-3 focus in the 52 Pages. I might make the main treasure table more straightforward too.

Finally, I had an insight about combat where I could get it down to fewer phases if I realized that combat should go with the most urgent stuff first - not in the order that you might think things happen. So, melee first and disengaging, then shoot, magic and move, and miscellaneous stuff at the end of the round. To handle the weird gamesmanship and panzerbush situations that might arise I allowed "overwatch" to happen so you can shoot the charging guy at close range while he is charging you. In a surprise situation, by the way, you can move first then melee.

Oh and yeah, I got rid of the grid. I still play that way but I'm pretty happy with a system that looks more spacious on the page and asks people to think about the dimensions of the fight rather than necessarily making them plot it all out.

And I've made a start on the example campaign, dungeon, and play session that round out the last four pages. So some of that soon, I'm hoping.

Sunday 13 October 2013

The Mississippi Sea

As Joe Bloch has observed, the Greyhawk map has a lot of interesting coastline, unlike boring maps like Middle Earth. This is, perhaps, just a conscious design decision made by Gary Gygax as he transitioned his Greyhawk campaign from the map of North America to an actual commercial product. In place of a big chunk of land in the Flanaess' equivalent of the US South and Midwest, we have a great two-armed sea.

Great maps by Anne B Meyer.
Could be this a homage to the great inland sea that spread over the Midwest in Cretaceous times? Perhaps, but only indirectly. In fact, the sea was far to the west of the present-day Great Lakes. Still, the idea of a North American inland sea would have been known in the 60's from archeology. Its receding phase as the Pierre Sea, shown below in a map by Ron Blakeley, presents an intriguing profile in the spirit of the Greyhawk map.

A geographically closer influence, perhaps, is the idea that the Mississippi Plain which stretches up to southern Illinois, surrounded by hills and bluffs on every side, is in danger of becoming submerged. Although mass media often focus on the possibility that California might drown or become an island from the activity of the San Andreas Fault, another equally severe seismic zone is located along the Mississippi. The New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-1812 were the strongest and most extensive recorded in North America.

Perhaps on the basis of this anxiety, a series of psychics since at least 1983 have produced remarkably similar-looking visionary maps of the future North America with huge inundations of California and the Mississippi Valley, often connecting the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico. A risen Atlantis, accounting for sea level rises elsewhere, is optional. A handy compilation of these is provided by a diligent poster on the David Icke forums, although the bloom somewhat goes off these prophecies when you notice that they were all predicted for different dates ranging from 1994 to 2012. Although a little late to have influenced Greyhawk, Gygax had avowedly read up on Theosophy and may have come across the 1940's cataclysmic geographical prophecies of the psychic Edgar Cayce, who attributed his "future map" with a marine Mississippi to a coming pole shift:

Of course, geological facts make the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys the most low-lying parts of the Midwest, so it is no great stretch to imagine them as the basis for a more watery continent. Indeed, extreme global warming scenarios also put Chicago - the location for Greyhawk in the early campaign - in a position to trade between lakes and sea, with the Ozarks standing in for the Pomarj peninsula:

Conspiracy believers, however, generally reject global warming and see the coming Mississippi Sea as the plot of a purposefully evil government, with levee demolitions, sinkholes and FEMA preparations all pointing to the cataclysm, in which a polar shift may or may not be involved. Thus we stand in the 21st Century.

Anyway! All of this suggests a slightly different look to the North American Greyhawk map. Greyhawk and Dyvers reclaim their positions as Chicago and Milwaukee, respectively, and some combination of seismic activity and sea level rise produces this geography, on a scale of 125 miles to the hex:

The three cities of the Greyhawk campaign, here, are a buffer between the proud kingdom of Acrondy and the plains realms to the west, while also profiting from north-south trade in raw materials from the woods and mines of the Lakes region. Ashland, from the etymology of Nashville, is a secretive realm ruled by druids and bards, where something real bad happened to blast the mountains in the east. The Four Winds kingdom is a nod to the etymology of Kansas, while Acrondy is a breakaway state from the declining Great Kingdom over the mountains. And somewhere in Manitoba, Iuz weaves his plots ...

Friday 11 October 2013

North American Greyhawk

The clearest sign that Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk was based on an earlier campaign that used a map of North America is the Lake Superior/Nyr Dyv resemblance.

Recently, I decided to develop a little more the small campaign world that had grown up around the university gaming society's forays into the Castle of the Mad Archmage. Player-named, a village named Linton and a town named Burwell coexisted with the "Grey City" (Greyhawk with numbers filed off). I wanted the world to have the same feel, looking like a slightly different derivation of Gygax's North America campaign with an homage as transparent as the "Mad Archmage" dungeon itself.

Southern Wisconsin, then, is the new location of the Grey City, and it sits in the hills at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi. Except that, using the same translation gimmick as the Atlas of True Names, it is now at the Great Grand River and the Redley (red-lay). It benefits from brisk river trade between the realms of Blackmoor up the river, the lands of Ernst to the east, and the cities downriver.

Lake Superior: Lake of Unknown depths
Lake Michigan: Lake of Fog (undoubtedly sorcerous)
Site of Chicago: Ruins of the Stinking City
Lake Geneva: Shrine of St. Cuthbert and the location of many pilgrimages and conclaves.

But what about points south? Well, that is where the real craziness comes in. Get ready for psychic visions, conspiratoids, and Cretaceous hijinks as ... the Bay gets Woolly, next time on Roles, Rules and Rolls!

Tuesday 8 October 2013

52 Pages Tutorial Character Sheet

One of my first old school things to get attention was the Old School Players character sheet which had all the rules for rolling up a character on it. Last weekend I was getting some new players started and thought it would be a good idea to work up an overlay for the existing 52 Pages sheet that would kind of simulate this experience. It ended up as three pieces of paper that you would cut various sized holes in, with instructions for filling in the parts of the sheet that were visible through the holes at he time.

This was clever but proved a little unwieldy in practice; I probably should have made the overlays a different color than the sheet. Anyway, this gave me the idea to just go back to the old ways and produce a character sheet with the instructions on it. After some simplifications and "ask the GM" handwaving I managed to fit things onto two sides of a piece of paper (European A4, so North Americans may want to do some resizing).

Blogger is being funny about updating the links section on the right so here is the link to the shared doc. Enjoy!

Monday 7 October 2013

Irony and Gamer Uncool

The second great coping mechanism to stave off the Fundamental Uncoolness of D&D is irony. Forget hipster mustaches and Alanis, this sense of irony is closer to the literary sense, or the kind of "romantic irony" discussed by such writers as Schlegel.  Ironic literature is conscious of the ways in which it is art and not reality. One way to handle this, then, is joking about the gap between a lofty representation and its base material.

As soon as literature became aware of itself, it became aware of this rift, with the earliest expression being Don Quijote. I keep coming back to Cervantes because the Quijote staked out an early and commanding position at the tangled cloverleaf intersection of fiction, fandom, fantasy and moral panic. In spite of the increasingly baroque proliferation of fantasism in popular culture across the past fifty years, nobody has even tried to wrest an American Quijote out of the rich source material - wielding a bat'leth, perhaps, and defying a couple of gangbangers. Perhaps it's because the new Quijotes have a posse, a Facebook group, a con. They no longer tower in solitude over the Castilian plain, and whereas before the curate and Sancho Panza might have staged an intervention, nowadays they just shrug and go to watch The Big Bang Theory.

Three ways irony can enter a game, and reduce the self-consciousness of becoming one's character ...

1. At its least threatening, gamer irony-lite mixes the fantasy world with references from outside. Every dwarf named Shakira, every Holy Grail gag, every "joke" dungeon level tries to water down the FUDD in the same way that National Lampoon undercut the earnestness of Tolkien with Bored of the Rings. Some of these jokes have become so reflexive that they have themselves become uncool, contaminated with the residue of gamer earnestness - see Holy Grail, above.

2. At the same time more sophisticated and more nerdy, there's ironic distance to be had in the discrepancy between the fantasy world of the game and the rules used to simulate it. Two of the most successful RPG comic strips have played with this concept - Knights of the Dinner Table showing what a group of rules-lawyering players look like, Order of the Stick showing what a fantasy world looks like when awareness and semi-awareness of the rules absurdities pops through. These jokes require the most inside knowledge to pull off, but they also work against absorption in the game by showing the artifice by which it's upheld.

3. It's also an old source of ironic amusement to hold an unflattering mirror up to the self-same daydreamer, from Quijote to Walter Mitty. The ironizer of roleplaying has the same strategy at hand, but almost always it's the other guy who inhabits an unflattering reality in contrast to the high-flown fantasy world. Thus we get the alpha-nerd stance, with its one-two of "We know enough about this game ... to make fun of the losers who play it." As self-hating and hypocritical as this attitude is, there's no shortage of it around, as witnessed by Fear of Girls, Zero Charisma, and so on. A particular twist of the knife is to interpret role-playing as inadequacy compensation, so the weakling plays a barbarian, the socially challenged plays a smooth lover man and so on.

I should also mention the rare times when irony works in favor of fictional immersion - the irony when game play fails to fulfill the expectations of fiction. The villain makes her first appearance ... and the heroes manage to find a way to kill her dead then and there. The quest of the long lost McGuffin ... turns out to have been a false rumor all along.All the same, somehow, this kind of irony also works against the self-inflicted stigma of immersion because it makes the players feel like they are taking part in something real and messy and mature, not something out of storybook land.

Next, finally: Being immersed and staying cool.

Friday 4 October 2013

Turning the Fantasy Party to Superheroes

We now pause our discussion of coolness in D&D for a word from our Joesky sponsor.

In the fantasy adventuring party, some of them fight and others have spells.

In the superhero party, everyone fights and everyone has one "spell."

(Except Batman.)

(And Doctor Strange.)

Superknight by John Staub.

This suggests a "medieval mutants" campaign using the standard rules of your D&D-oid system, but there are no clerics or wizards. Instead, everyone is a fighter or thief (or a scholar, with stats as a wizard and gaining experience twice as quickly).

All PCs and major villains get a mutant power that is a (d6: 1-3, cleric, 4-6, wizard) spell, level determined by the minimum of 2d6. You get an additional, thematically related spell at every odd level. If the power's level is:

Greater than twice your level: Using it knocks you out for 1 hour.
Greater than your level: You can only use it once a day.
Equal to your level: You can use it twice per day.
Lower than your level: You can use it three times a day
Lower than half your level: You can use it at will.

Also, this looks good for a psionics system in a standard fantasy campaign, with an appropriate XP tax on the lucky psionicist.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

It's Not Uncool, It's Normal!

One of the ways to deny the fundamental uncoolness of D&D is to strenuously insist that it's cool. This fuels a perennial struggle to find ways to bend role-playing games into this fiction. And this struggle has gotten harder over time.

I mean, there was a brief time at the start, before it got out in the mass media, when they could make like D&D was some kind of edgy activity that all the beautiful people were doing - something like Fletcher Pratt's or Norman Bel Geddes' chic Manhattan wargames:

And then ... nope, nope, nope...

Floundering ever since the stigma descended on roleplaying games in the 1980's, two escape routes have generally been tried. One is to fight against the shallower definition of "uncool," to try and purge away the fantasy content from a role-playing game. "This game is cool because it's about real things" - or about socially acceptable forms of escapism, anyway. At this task, roleplaying murder mysteries succeed; roleplaying games about rock bands fail (because only 11 year olds imagine themselves as members of a cool rock band); and some other attempts just merit a stunned silence.

Even in the art of roleplaying games we can see the struggle between the desire to go full-on socially uncool and pimp out your game like the ultimate stoner van or Manowar album cover, or to be "mature" and "restrained" and bring it in like a Blue Note sleeve. DCC RPG, in other words, versus Old School Hack or mine own 52 Pages. This may even apply to game mechanics, wherein lengthy tables and baroque calculations represent a certain disregard for the novice, while stripped-down and simple play holds out the hope that you might get Aunt Tillie to play with you yet.

The second escape route is to accept the fantasy scenario but to deny the truly "uncool" thing about roleplaying, the immersion and identification with character. So, we get the comparisons to chess or to improvisational theater. The former implies that it's just a game of strategy played with funny pieces, the latter implies that all the play-acting is not self-indulgent or self-threatening but done with professional control for an enraptured audience.

"We're storytelling!" No you're not. You're collaborating on a story through role-taking and the closest normal-people analogy is when a bunch of drama show writers get together in a room and work out what happens next ... but each of them takes on a part from the show ... and these parts continue year on year ... Really, the only truthful answer is:

"There is nothing else like it."

Tuesday 1 October 2013

There's Cool, And Then There's Cool

When I say D&D is fundamentally uncool, what do I mean anyway? The word "cool" has shifted around so much that it's hard to know. It needs explanation.

A key text here is Robert Farris Thompson's article An Aesthetic of the Cool, from 1973, the journal African Arts. What is cool to the Gola of Liberia? Thompson quotes Warren D'Azevedo:
Ability to be nonchalant at the right moment ... to reveal no emotion in situations where emotion and sentimentality are acceptable - in other words, to act as if one's mind were in another world.
You may protest that transportation through fiction, fandom or gaming is just that, putting one's mind in another world, but this misses the point. Cool implies that the other world is a calmer, less emotional place. To travel to another world in order to excite the passions is the opposite of cool. "Coolness" by Thompson's definition is a poised posture, a place without conflict. By removing expression outward, you remove the possibility of interruption or ridicule inward.

Other writers on the aesthetics of cool among African Americans and its general percolation out to the world culture - such Mintz, Billson, and Pountain & Robins - have remarked on its potential as resistance. For Black men in America, cool has been a way to negate the clownish features laid on them  by racist iconography, to mentally check out from an environment unresponsive to their dignity and needs. The appropriation of cool, in the service of musical and other aesthetic trends, is laid forth in Pountain & Robins' 2000 book, auguring in the hipster era. Ultimately for them, cool is a "permanent state of private rebellion," a state that vanishes once it calls attention to its own coolness.

This reminds us that D&D is "uncool" in a more superficial sense, that of the well-known American high school hierarchy with its "cool kids" and "uncool kids." But in any high school there are two kinds of cool kids. You have the popular kids who show their passions for socially approved costumes, games, and fields of expertise like cheerleading, school spirit and sports. Another kind, though, set their sights outside the high school walls. They are cool toward school but this form of resistance masks their passions, aimed elsewhere: alternative cinema, drama, music, art. In high school and college I played RPGs almost as much with a set of punk rockers as with the more overtly enthusiastic nerd crew. They were socially uncool and yet - in the anthropological sense - truly cool.

In McLuhan's well-known distinction, roleplaying is one of the hottest of media, requiring hard mental and imaginative work to achieve the immersion that is its goal. Contrast this to "cool" media like television which ask for only open eyes. People who grow self-conscious or dissatisfied about roleplaying's hotness reach for the bottle of cool to cut it down.

By a nice coincidence, I recently returned to the RPG Site forum after some days absence to find an argument brewing, relevant to all these points. The initiating question was whether anyone enjoys playing RPGs in costume. As I pointed out last post, this activity is the quintessence of the FUDD (Fundamental Uncoolness of D&D) and so not surprisingly sparked off heated protestations. Many posters spoke of their desire not to look like even more a geek than they already were, under the watchful eyes of sarcastic co-workers or Bible Belt society.

But in an age of ubiquitous popularity of the Lord of the Rings films or Game of Thrones show, the uncool thing is not liking fantasy, but liking it in ... that way. That hot, immersive way that puts you at risk of disappearing entirely into the fantasy world, of regressing into childhood. That play-acting, masquerading, feasting and wassailing that Puritans have always sought to ban, that sensible people indulge in only at certain times of the year and in certain cities of the nation.

Bad enough you read the books instead of consuming media (getting hotter ... look what happened to poor Quijote). Bad enough you play a game where you take the role of a character (getting hotter ... look what happened to poor Black Leaf). But to run around wearing the costumes? To unselfconsciously declaim in a funny accent, your lineage as a noble dwarf? You're hot as hell and most people can't take the heat. They have to turn up the cool - in one of several ways.

Next: "We're Normal, Honest!"